DIXIE BELLE, JUST 7 MONTHS OLD, performed well this morning. As a reward, the black-and-tan coonhound is cozied up next to owner Jack Jones, her head resting contentedly in his lap.
“She started treeing at 4½ months—very unusual,” Jones boasts of Belle’s coon-hunting skills like a proud papa, caressing her sleek head. On this cold January morning, displaying other fine traits in her first-ever bench show, she has won an impressive trophy and ribbon for Best of Breed and Best of Class among female black-and-tan puppies.
“I done called my wife, and she’s all tore up,” says Jones, a bearded and burly dog breeder and hunter from Marshall, N.C. “She loves the trophies better than the dogs do.”
It’s still early on day one of the 48th annual Grand American Coon Hunt and Show, one of the largest coonhound events in the country. Jones and Belle are on the bleachers inside the Orangeburg County Fairgrounds Arts Building, watching some 150 other handlers and dogs compete, waiting to find out if they’ll be included in the Best of Show competition later on.
Jones passes time swapping stories with other dog owners and scouting the field in the United Kennel Club–sanctioned event, watching the floor where handlers coax their dogs into perfect posture: chest forward, tail erect, nose high.
“Dogs aren’t statues,” breeder Krystle Pickett of Hilliard, Fla., points out. “These are hound dogs, bred to be smelling something, not standing still with their nose in the air.”
Sharp-eyed judges examine each dog, teeth to tail, ensuring they meet breed standards and searching for the one animal that best looks the part of an all-American coonhound.
Like all the handlers showing or hunting with their animals at the Grand American, Jones and Pickett want to win, but they also enjoy the camaraderie. Part dog show, part coon hunt, part shopping extravaganza, part social gathering, the event is a 48-year-old tradition that attracts some 30,000 competitors, vendors and spectators from across the U.S. and Canada.
Arriving on the scene with no dog, no hunting know-how and not a stitch of camouflage to my name, I am the anomaly. Doesn’t matter. This is an open party. The people are sociable, the dogs are friendly and the whole atmosphere is relaxed.
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One common obsession ties it all together: Here, it’s all about the dogs.
Getting down to business
Camo-clad Faye Blackburn has set up shop at the rear of her pickup truck in the grassy parking area. The sun has pushed aside the morning chill, and she bides her time in a folding chair behind a pen of adorable puppies—a mix of beagle and Plott hound—waiting for their charms to lure customers.
“We don’t register these—we just like to hunt ’em and raise ’em,” Blackburn says.
It’s a “relatively close” two-hour drive from her home in Metter, Ga., she says, so she’s come to the Grand American every year for 20 years. She’s not alone. Plenty of other makeshift vendors are doing brisk business from behind pickup trucks in the parking lot. And plenty of buyers are in evidence, roaming the grounds with new puppies cradled in their arms.
The dogs for sale out here are easier on the budget than the pedigreed dogs inside the fairgrounds, the ones with family trees far more extensive and impressive than most people I know. Stud dogs, most with lengthy lists of titles and hunting wins, are also being promoted in these indoor stalls.
“If someone’s looking for a hound to hunt, they’re looking for one that’s done well in competition hunts,” explains Grand American president David McKee of Whitmire, a member of Broad River Electric Cooperative.
Like the dog breeders on site, commercial vendors here benefit from a targeted market. Booth after booth sells dog boxes, GPS tracking transmitters, leashes, hunting vests, head lamps, jewelry made from used shotgun shells, camouflage-colored comforter sets, “koon huntin’ music”—if it’s remotely related to coonhounds or hunting, you can buy it here. And at a great price.
“It’s like the difference between Kmart and the mall,” Jones says of the bargains. With six more black-and-tans at home besides Dixie Belle, one expecting puppies any day, he planned to stock up on dog and hunting supplies after the bench show, while a friend was shopping for a new tracking system for his dogs.
“Between the two of us, we’ll spend $1,500,” Jones says.
Making his fourth consecutive trip to the Grand American this year, vendor Kyle Evans of Evans Custom Dog Boxes in Jones, Mich., says the Orangeburg event is one of the top three sales venues for his company all year.
“We’ll sell about 24 dog boxes this weekend—that’s a load of dog boxes for us,” Evans says. “It’s well worth coming, I can tell you that.”
His top seller? The camouflage-colored box, of course.
On the hunt
By early afternoon on both Friday and Saturday, the bench show is history. Shoppers are browsing at ease, and many of the kids on site have found free entertainment—sliding down a steep grassy hill on scraps of cardboard boxes.
Now it’s time to shift the energy and emphasis to the nite hunt.
Hundreds of hunters—mostly men, a few women—crowd around a pickup truck with a makeshift office cabin in the bed. From here come the announcements: which hunters and dogs you’ll be hunting with, come darkness, and where.
“These next casts are hunting out of Three Rivers tonight,” an announcer calls out to the crowd. “Cast number 50, dog number 285—that’s two-eight-five; dog number 129—that’s one-two-nine; and dog number 171—that’s one-seven-one. That’s cast number 50.”
And on it goes, for about 30 minutes.
As a spectator, I have to admire the low-tech yet finely orchestrated system of randomly divvying up 323 hunters into 82 “casts” and connecting them to a guide who will steer them to their designated hunting territory, somewhere within an hour-and-a-half radius of Orangeburg.
All the hunting takes place after dark, when the three- or four-person casts take their dogs out to one of 20 or so designated hunting sites. Up all night chasing coons, the hunters have a two-hour window in which to score points for “striking” (barking on the scent of a coon) and “treeing” a coon. The coons are not injured or killed in this hunt.
A good hunter, McKee tells me, knows his dog’s bark. For a newbie like me, this is hard to fathom, as my ears have been ringing for two days with the cacophony of hundreds of barking hounds. But I learn some subtle distinctions—a “chop bark” or “chop mouth,” for instance, means a series of short, quick barks; a “bawl” is a longer, protracted vocalization. Every dog has its own vocal trademarks.
And there are rules for scoring these hunts. So, so many rules. So many that the hunters themselves occasionally get confused.
Friday night’s hunt turns out to be a low-scoring affair across the board.
“Coons just wasn’t moving,” hunter Greg Kennedy of Kingstree says with a shrug. “My dog treed a lay-up coon [a coon that hasn’t come down to feed] about 30 minutes after the hunt—that don’t get me nothing.”
Undaunted, Kennedy, a Santee Electric Cooperative member and president of two S.C. coon-hunting clubs, came back Saturday for a second round of competition, hoping to make it into the final hunt. The top four teams from Friday and Saturday nights form an elite cast that ventures out for one final hunt in the wee hours of Sunday morning to determine the championship.
“It’s all about the fellowship,” Kennedy says. “Some people take it too serious, but I try to treat it like it’s just pleasure hunting with a friend on a Friday night.”
Elliott Shuler of Holly Hill fared a little better than Kennedy on Friday, then won Saturday’s hunt with his treeing walker, Cotton’s Cowgirl, but neither made the final four.
“Sometimes one spot is good one night, not so good the next night,” says Shuler, a past winner of the Grand American. “It’s the luck of the draw—everything just has to go right for you.”
Win or lose, at the end of the day—or night—the competitors are here for the camaraderie, the love of the sport, the beauty of the outdoors, the thrill of the chase and, of course, the love of their dogs.
“You’ll see people from every walk of life out there, mixing and mingling,” Shuler says. “For most people, it’s about working with the dogs.”
Faye Blackburn likes to hunt rabbits and raise beagles and coon dogs at her home in Metter, Ga. She comes to the Grand American to visit old friends, make new friends and sell her unregistered pups.